Former civil servants give their view on the case for reformby John Kerr / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Caricatures from the title sequence of “Yes Minister”— Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (left); Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker MP (right); his Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (centre) © Gerald Scarfe
John Kerr (former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
The distinction between policy (a matter for ministers) and delivery (the civil servant’s task) is a fallacy. The dichotomy is false. When initiatives come top down—whether by ministerial edict (the Lansley NHS revolution, universal credit), Treasury fiat (Help to Buy, rights for shares), or Number 10 soundbite (all energy tariffs to be the cheapest)—mistakes are possible. They become probable if warnings of downsides and difficulties of implementation are dismissed as disloyal. If it happens a lot, as under both Brown and Cameron, systemic consequences follow: ministers blame the civil service for failures, good civil servants vote with their feet, the relationship breaks down.
The public service ethos entails a sense of personal responsibility, to ministers but also to the public. Good policy tends to result from a synthesis of political insight and apolitical advice. No good minister wants sycophancy from civil servants—special advisors provide more than enough—what they respect is expertise, particularly on ways and means, knowledge of where the bodies are buried, and honest advice.
What good civil servants hate is not being present at the creation: getting their orders without any prior chance to affect them or exercise what they see as their responsibility, including if necessary the duty to dissent. If the outcome is one which they can’t, in good conscience, implement, of course they must change jobs or resign, but the good ones go anyway, when shut out from the policy-making process. The policy initiative which can’t stand up to searching in-house analysis isn’t fit to see the light of day; and the minister who isn’t strong enough to relish the process isn’t up to the job.
So ministers shouldn’t try to hand pick their permanent secretaries. Or bring them in from outside: the business of government can’t be picked up overnight. And ministers shouldn’t blame policy failures on defective delivery by civil servants: policy is bad if it can’t be delivered well; loyalty is two-way; and ministers are responsible for all their department’s work.…